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The Greening of Literature

seattle

A week ago I traveled to Seattle to participate at the AWP Conference and Bookfair — the world’s largest gathering of writers and writing programs. Ashland Creek Press hosted a booth, and a number of our authors attended for panels and book signings. We also met editors at the environmental journals Newfound, Flyway, Catamaran, and Terrain.

With more than 12,000 writers at the conference, it was a crazy few days. Perhaps in part due to its Seattle location, a strong environmental theme ran throughout the conference, and I was pleased to see so many people at the “Greening of Literature” panel that I moderated with writers Ann Pancake, JoeAnn Hart, Mindy Mejia, and Gretchen Primack.

I only wish I could have recorded this session because each writer offered outstanding advice and inspiration for any writer pursuing eco-fiction or eco-poetry. I frantically took notes during the presentations. Below are a few nuggets that I was able to capture.

JoeAnn Hart is the author of Float and Addled. She posted her AWP talk on her blog and I highly recommend reading it in full. Here are a few passages that stuck with me:

As John Clancy said, the difference between reality and fiction, is that fiction has to make sense. So when I started Float, I began reading about marine plastics, which turned out to be not just unsightly, immortal, and deadly to sea animals, but toxic to humans as well. As the writing continued, my interest in the health of the oceans expanded. I read about dead zones, overfishing, bottom-trawling, acidification, and the opportunistic appetite of the jellyfish. I learned a lot about the sea, but much of it was pretty dry. Pages and pages of one damn fact after another. No racy scenes, no humor. No plot, no narrative, no characters. No Pauline tied to the train tracks. It was informative, but not particularly engaging. Intellectually, I was concerned; emotionally, I was on the outside looking in. Cerebral writing has a cerebral effect. Academic papers and straight journalism cannot convey human suffering; they can only calculate or report it.

But most readers don’t want to hear about populations; they want a specific person. Not the planet, but a particular place in a moment of time.

And…

As writers, our most sustainable energy source is creativity, and we should use it freely. Literature teaches us to notice, to care, and to create meaning.

Gretchen Primack is a poet and author of Kind and Doris’ Red Spaces. Gretchen made clear that any writer aiming to write about the environment cannot overlook the animal industries. The pollution generated by these industries far outweigh the impact of cars — so we would make a much greater impact if we all simply stopped eating animal products.

Gretchen read Love This from Kind. Many of Gretchen’s poems take the perspective of the animals — and this is not pleasant place to be. It’s horrifying to see the world through a dairy cow’s eyes, to see your offspring yanked away from you immediately after giving birth, over and over again.

When asked how she could stay upbeat while writing such challenging poetry, Gretchen said that the writing process actually helped her, as she felt engaged and able to make a difference. And I think this is a key takeaway for any writer tackling difficult issues. It’s easy to get depressed when you see and learn horrible things, but by remembering that you’re putting your talents to work to help make a bad situation less bad, you can at least know you’re making an impact.

Gretchen also talked about a word that I find is too frequently used to distance us from animals — anthropomorphism. She asks: What if we, what the planet, erred on the side of having too much compassion for animals? Would that be a bad thing? And how much better would this planet be if we did just that?

Ann Pancake is the author of Strange as This Weather Has Been, a novel about mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

Ann  told us about her extensive research, which included newspapers (there were no books out yet on this issue), interviews with residents of the regions, time spent living in the region, and research at the state archives. She then let all this information “compost” for a period of time before she began writing. I love her compost metaphor because it drives home how important research is but also how this information often doesn’t make it into the writing directly, if it all. That is, Ann was clear in emphasizing how she often had to leave out information she wanted to mention when she realized that it would have come across as didactic — something writers of eco-fiction must strive to avoid.

She also provided tips about how to get a message in more subtle ways, such as relying on a child narrator. But she emphasized that you must prioritize your art above politics. That is, the story and the characters are most important — that the message will emerge through them, and not vice versa.

Mindy Mejia is the author of The Dragon Keeper. Mindy said that she didn’t set out to write an environmental work initially. She was simply writing a love story — a story about a zoologist and her relationship with a Komodo dragon — and that everyone loves a good love story. I couldn’t agree more!

Mindy talked about how she spoke to a classroom of students about her book and how they responded to fiction vs. nonfiction. What was interesting was how they had trusted her to get the science right — and this is a key lesson to any writer: The reader is placing faith in you, the writer, to not only tell a great story but to get the science right.

A bright future for eco-fiction and eco-poetry

I didn’t expect to leave Seattle feeling more energized than when I arrived, but that’s exactly how I felt — because I realized there are so many writers out there who are passionate about eco-literature. Based on the conversations, the readings, the number of people who dropped by our booth, I am optimistic about the future.

PS: I have to mention a nearby restaurant that I frequented while we were in Seattle: Veggie Grill. This place is all vegan, and I challenge any omnivore to eat here and not come away impressed. It’s one of many plant-based restaurants that prove that adopting a vegan diet is not about deprivation but about delicious, sustainable,  environmentally friendly food.

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Happy New Year from EcoLit Books

Happy new year, readers and writers! We are looking forward to a new year of eco-literature and already have a great lineup of new reviews coming soon.

For all of you who live in the Seattle area or who are attending AWP, we’d love to see you at our eco-lit panel on Saturday, March 1, at 12 noon: The Greening of Literature: Eco-fiction and poetry to enlighten and inspire. The panel will be moderated by John Yunker, who will be joined by eco-minded authors, essayists, and poets: JoeAnn Hart, Mindy Mejia, Ann Pancake, and Gretchen Primack. Authors on this panel discuss how their ecologically themed fiction and poetry engages readers in powerful ways that nonfiction can’t. Panelists discuss writing in these emerging sub-genres as well as their readers’ responses, and offer tips for writing about the environment in ways that are galvanizing and instructive without sacrificing creativity to polemics. Click here for full conference details.

If you’d like to start 2014 with a sample of Ashland Creek Press eco-lit, check out our newly updated Eco-Fiction Sampler.

ecosampler

Wishing you a happy new year of reading!

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Q&A with Float author JoeAnn Hart and cover artist Karen Ristuben

JoeAnn Hart is the author of Float, a “witty, profound, and beautifully observed” (Margot Livesey) novel about family, the environment, and life in a hardscrabble seaside town in Maine. Karen Ristuben is an award-winning artist and educator whose work is environmental advocacy at its core.

Float: A Novel

JoeAnn and Karen, who both live in Gloucester, Massachusetts, recently talked about their work and their passion for environmental awareness.

Q, from KAREN RISTUBEN: JoeAnn, when did you become aware of the problem of marine plastics, and how did you get inspired to write about it?

A: JOEANN HART: Living in Gloucester, where I have lived for over thirty years, you can’t not be aware that the beaches are lousy with plastic washed up from the sea. During the summer, beach crews arrive at dawn to groom the sand, taking away the plastic debris with the seaweed, so tourists are spared the unsightly mess. For those of us who are here year-round, we watch marine plastics wash up, and we watch them wash back out, twice a day with the tides. So when I started writing Float, I realized that if I was going to write about life in a coastal town, plastics were going to play a part, because they’re all around us in increasingly menacing ways. Float begins when the protagonist, Duncan, rescues a seagull choking on a plastic six-pack holder that the bird tried to eat, mistaking it for food. Plastics are not just an issue of unsightly litter on the shoreline, they’re a killer.

Q, from JOEANN: Karen, how long have you been focused on plastics and the ocean? What was the moment when you said to yourself, I want to follow this thread of ocean pollution in my art and my life? 

A: KAREN: In 2010 I was in graduate school and, in the midst of a tough critique, one of my very wise professors said, “If indeed we are interested in nature, we need to seriously consider what that means today. The illusion is that we have access to unspoiled, unpolluted ocean. But our relationship with nature is so tenuous. When we romanticize nature, we re-inscribe the illusion that everything is fine, that nature is a contemplative space, a nurturing space. But we can’t undermine the urgency of the moment. So be careful, he said. Ask what the community needs. Ask: What is at risk? What is at stake? What is urgent?”

This was a watershed moment for me, as I’d been using the ocean as an aesthetic subject rather than considering what it needed from me. When I started picking plastic off the beach and researching the complex, global issue of marine plastic pollution I realized that I could try to do something about it.

Q, from KAREN: How did you go about researching the plastics issue for Float, and were you surprised by anything you learned?

A: JOEANN: Once I began to explore the issue of marine plastics in books and articles, online and off, I was stunned by the enormity of the problem. Not just the sheer amount of plastics in the oceans, estimated at billions of tons annually, but the toxicity of it. There is no such thing as biodegradable plastic. It never goes anywhere; it just continues to break down into smaller bits, eventually to the size of plankton. The fish eat the plastic and incorporate the toxic chemicals into their flesh, including endocrine disrupters. Then we eat the fish. Or we feed fishmeal to our livestock. Plastics are so new—the soda bottle was only invented in 1977— that it is only in the past few years that the scientific evidence has emerged about their danger to human health, including infertility and a host of other problems, even obesity.

Q, from JOEANN: Tell me about your art before you became interested in environmental themes. For example, what was your medium and subject matter? 

A: KAREN: I worked in glass for a long time, combining it with other materials, like rusted metal, into sculptural forms. Then I began to look at the properties of glass—reflectivity and transparency—and thought about those properties coexisting and interchanging as the light source changes. And I realized that water does the same thing, so with photography and video I studied the refractions and reflections generated when water and glass meet.  Living on the ocean, I had a constant visual source for wave patterns and shifting light.

The cover of Float came from that body of work. I have a collection of car windows, and I would take them out into the watery places of our environment here on Cape Ann—vernal pools, ice patches, ponds, the beach—and photograph how they reflected, distorted, and inverted the surrounding landscape. Multiple windows would produce multiple dimensions of sky, water, whatever. And sometimes a breeze would move the water surface so the photograph would catch that one moment of a manmade object obstructing a wave or a ripple.

Q, from KAREN: The phrase “God Help Us” is forever stuck in my brain now that I’ve read Float.  Do you hope for the book to inspire change and if so, how?

A: JOEANN: There are all different ways to inspire change. I have been to your program, “Just, One Word …,” where you share what you discovered firsthand on a research vessel in the Pacific Gyre. You make it visual and personal. You tell your story, and people connect and are able to better understand the problem. I tell a story, too, in Float, only mine comes from the imagination in fictional form. Having said that, in fiction, it is death to proselytize. All a writer can do is tell a good story, bringing in environmental challenges, and let the characters wrestle with the issues. It would be great if readers were then inspired to change their behavior and use less plastic. It would be even better if they lobbied for funding to invent a truly biodegradable plastic. Recycling is good, but it’s a drop in the bucket. We can try to use less plastic, but in the modern world, it is almost impossible to live without it. The computer I’m writing on is mostly plastic. New cars have 300 pounds of plastic in them. We need safe alternatives to what we use now.  When I realized that, invention became the moving force in Float (think plastic made out of jellyfish). Now we just need smart science to make it come true.

Q, from JOEANN: I know you’ve developed a presentation called “Just, One Word …” to bring attention to the Pacific Gyre, where you travelled to see the mess we’ve made of the oceans. Where do you bring “Just, One Word …,” and what’s been the reception?

A: KAREN: I’ve presented “Just, One Word …” to a few thousand people over the last two years and yes, many of the images and information came from my voyage across the North Pacific Gyre with Algalita Marine/5 Gyres scientists in 2011. The presentation covers the issue of marine plastic pollution through the lenses of industry, science, politics, and economics. I’ve presented it in colleges, high schools, middle schools, art venues, community centers, and marine science conferences all over the country. The reception has been incredibly positive, I think, in part because it presents the issues clearly, in lay terms, and based on an accessible narrative. Also, its multimedia components of video, photography, sound, music, charts, and diagrams are presented as a performance/lecture rather than a straight didactic lecture.

Q, from KAREN: Can you talk about the role of humor and irony in your writing? It’s a great window into the gritty subjects you tackle! 

A: JOEANN: While characters are wrestling with the dangers of marine plastics, readers must be entertained and totally involved if they are going to keep on reading. Humor is one way of doing this. It helps us deal with our own absurdity. Laughter is often the result of a sudden truth about ourselves, whether individually or as a species. Here we are, big-brained humans in the twenty-first century, supposedly the smartest animals who ever walked the earth, and we are killing ourselves and our world with our own cleverness. What else can you do but laugh? The saving grace in all this is that I believe that the cleverness that got us into this environmental mess will get us out of it. If that doesn’t happen before it’s too late, well then, the joke will be on us.

Q, from JOEANN: What do you see in the future, in terms of how your art will evolve, and what are you working on now?

A: KAREN: I believe that art is a representation of our human response to the world, so I expect that my art will continue to evolve as I respond to events affecting our natural world. I’m currently working on the Synergy Project, where eight artists are linked with eight marine scientists from MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. We are making work that will be exhibited at Boston’s Museum of Science from February to June 2013.

I’ve collaborated with Sophie Chu, a marine chemist studying how the ocean’s changing chemistry is affecting the ability of pteropods—shell-bearing plankton—to survive. One-third of the excessive carbon dioxide we dump into our atmosphere—coal-burning power plants, industrial emissions, cars, air conditioners—is absorbed by the ocean. This causes a chemical reaction resulting in lower pH, which means that the ocean is becoming more acidic and causing shellfish to corrode.

I’ve acidified 350 white eggshells and will show them in a large sculptural installation with a video component. The work demonstrates the effects of ocean acidification of calcium carbonate structures (eggs and shellfish). And there are 350 to signify the 350 parts per million in atmospheric carbon that most scientists agree we need to strive for so as not to face a major marine extinction. We are now at 390 ppm and rising.